The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Submarines

Must Not Remember.

I sat numbly against the concrete blocks rising up at an awkward, uncomfortable right angle to the concrete sidewalk.  I say, “sat”, but there was less energy than that in it.  My body was laying but my legs sat akimbo, situated by luck, gravity, and the curious fluidity a fifth of Rum gives the body.  And so the two halves of me argued themselves into a knot over the hours.

But there was nowhere else to be.  No hope to be found, no dream to pursue.  Sitting.  Breathing.  Thinking about the Dark Days when sobriety forced me to look, drinking the memory away when I could.

And then a man stopped in front of my inverted cap on the sidewalk beside me.  He squatted down, sympathetic yet sophisticated enough, and asks, “if I give you a Lincoln will you use it for a meal, or for rum?”, noting with a glance the bottle beside me.

I knew this routine. The man didn‘t want to think himself party to the debasement of another alcoholic binge.  It seemed so unrighteous and wasteful to him, I‘m sure.

I clutched, and clawed with unsteady hands a grip for myself on his scarf.  I pulled up and held myself until I could focus on his eyes.  He returned my tortured gaze squinting through a fog of still-liquored breath, bravely holding his righteous ground.

“Mister”, I croaked, the disuse of my voice from days of isolation in this sea of humanity covering my throat with a gravelly coating, “If you‘d seen the horrors of the Deep that I‘ve seen, if you‘d crossed eyes with Davey Jones as have I, if you‘d heard the screams of the men he carries below as their life force escaped their tortured, drowning bodies, you‘d pray – not beg – pray, for your last meal to be of the strongest Rum.  A Happy Meal is of no use to me, it only fuels my mind – allows me to remember.  I must!not!remember!”

Much has been made in recent months of the plight of the homeless veteran, and of the suicide rates amongst them.  This post isn’t about rehashing the numbers, because to be honest, the numbers aren’t that helpful.  If I say, “there’s a lot”, I’ve said a little more than many people will ever process.  More to the point, there’s a reason these badly-dressed icons are there.  The guys that make jokes on their cardboard signs on the offramp of the freeway…you know, good for them, but there is more to it than those guys who are functional enough to create an effective marketing campaign.  The guys that I know who are or are very close to homelessness – if they could mount a campaign they would, but then they wouldn’t be homeless either.  If food were all they needed, they’d have figured that out by now.  If righteousness was their issue, well…by my beliefs, they stand forgiven already.

It is a dark place to be, someone who has seen and heard the weapons of war take a life, or many lives, and to look down and see your own hand on the trigger, or to have guided the targeting, to know it was YOU who killed.  It is darker still to walk among those whose existence will never come anywhere near that moment, to stand there on a street corner of sharp-dressed businessmen, elegant matrons, smart-dressed workers…and to see yourself in their midst with blood on your hands.   Many work through it a little worse for wear but still functional.  Why it affects some and not others in such violent spasms of insanity isn’t fully known yet.  Treatment exists, but many vets are so jaded they suspect everything – including the help given.  For different reasons, many reject the only interactions and relationships that will help heal them, and clutch desperately to the tree of forgetfulness.

And when that fails, they often commit suicide.  Numbers vary, and are explained differently by different groups.  But while they are busy counting, recounting, and sorting their numbers and working them around into logical order, another confused, paranoid, isolated, maybe homeless veteran dies in a place he doesn’t deserve to die.  So think about that one guy.  Just one.  Maybe you can find him.  Maybe someone you know can find him. Maybe instead of a $5-dollar bill you can sit there beside him, and listen.  Ask for a story.  Expect something crazy, something that doesn’t even seem real, something you doubt ever happened, and just listen anyway.  Hang with the craziness.

Because he never imagined it would happen to him either.

USS Thresher: Lost at Sea, April 10th, 1963

Maybe this annual observance only makes sense to those who have heard the sound of the diving alarm. And felt the air system close as the hatch shuts. And felt the down-angle, and the shift of the side-to-side sway of the boat cease as the Sea closed it’s liquid gates above them.

After a while, we didn’t think about where we were, there beneath the sea, dependent on steel and tubes and tanks – valves and switches that gave us control over the physical properties of air, oil, water, and electricity. It didn’t knock at the back of our consciousness like a blinking light. But we knew that in every action we took – valves we touched – or didn’t touch, every switch we operated – or chose not to operate – there was the potential to mean life or death for all of us.

Making a mistake was only part of the danger. Forces beyond our control had to be considered, things that once set in action would prevail over our comparatively frail bodies. We learned to deal with fear and danger as a companion. Not a friend, but a companion nonetheless. It didn’t lurk somewhere out there in the dark. It sat with us, slept with us, worked with us.

And sometimes, those forces won.

How on earth”, people have been asking me for years, “did you wind up on submarines?”

Well, lads and lasses, I’m glad you asked. Pull alongside, and I’ll tell you the tale. Parts have been bandied about, heard, repeated, and re-heard by friends, family, birds of the field and fish of the Sea. But few, if any, have heard the whole story.

Early fall of ’83, I was driving north along McLoughlin Blvd through Portland, Oregon. It was a typical October day in the Pacific Northwest – crisp, clear – the kind of autumn day one basks in, as the summer bustle comes to a close and winter starts to hint that it has designs on your well-tended garden. But I was not in a basking mood. Oh, I was in a mood, but it was the kind of mood that you only describe by saying, simply, “I’m in a mood”, and people instantly know what you mean.

And step back a pace or two.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself already.

I was only a few short weeks past the point where I couldn’t just couldn’t work as a CNA in a nursing home one more day. I had seen an ad in the newspaper for people to sell vacuum cleaners, and I had signed myself right up for that, expecting to be raking in the dough any time now. On my first day, we sat in training, learning how to demonstrate the equipment. On the second day, we sat in the basement of the shop, and sang rousing sales songs, which I could only mumble through in shamed sub-audible mortification. On the third day, after singing/mumbling songs, I and my trainer visited homes, and he showed me how “easy it was”. The man was smooth. I’d have bought two bags of ice from him to cool down my igloo. For the 4th through 10th day, I attempted to sell vacuum cleaners.

Let me reiterate that: Attempted…to sell.

On “The Fateful Day Minus One” day, I finally sold my first vacuum cleaner – to a young woman in North Portland who, for reasons beyond my naiveté of the time had a huge round bed with a red crushed velvet cover on it in the front room of her 1930’s house. She had wanted to buy the machine on credit. I helped her fill out the paperwork, and left the vacuum cleaner in an outburst of wanton optimism.

On the Fateful Day, the first call I got was from my boss, wanting to know why the heck I’d left the vacuum cleaner with a Woman of Ill-Repute(not his exact words, but you get the idea) having received no cash, and whose credit was no good and who would undoubtedly never pay for the machine. I had no idea what he was talking about. So stunned was I that it was another month, in a quiet moment of hard, sober reflection after another cold, arduous day of boot camp in the sub-arctic midwest, that I realized that for every one of those 30 days I had subconsciously carried with me a vision of him frothing at the mouth, as he told me to go pick the dang thing up and come in to the shop. It wasn’t until I could see it in humour that I could let it go. But I digress and once again am ahead of myself.

So it came to be that I found myself traveling along McLoughlin Blvd on a crisp, clear October morning, beauty that was completely lost to me. I got about halfway across the city; peeved, un-caffeinated, depressed, vociferously berating myself for dropping out of college, for taking this job, and for just about everything I’d ever done in my short span upon this earth. I was half-way through muttering a freshly-turned phrase under my breath when I passed a military recruiter’s station.

The U-turn was abrupt, fast, noisy, and undoubtedly illegal, though I couldn’t have cared less at the moment. I still don’t. Best use of unsafe and illegal street driving ever.

I entered the building, and saw four areas, one each for the 4 branches of the military. I knew virtually nothing about any branch of the service, except that my dad had been in the Air Force. I stepped up to that window.

The blue-uniformed Air Force recruiter nearly took his feet off his civilian desk, but…not quite. He was smug, smirky, and a little too nonchalant. He told me that to enter the Air Force, I had to choose a rate, and then wait for an opening in that rate. I didn’t even know what a rate was, let alone what I wanted. This would take patience. I had a wife, new baby, and no job. Patience was not on the menu.

The Marine almost spoke an intelligible word of English. Whatever it was he said, he was very, very enthusiastic about. To be honest, I had no idea what language he was speaking, but he spoke with the clarity of a door-gunner, which meant you didn’t have to understand a single word to know you had to hurry up and/or get down. I like words. I don’t think the Marines would have appreciated my dedication to enunciation.

The army guy asked me a few oddly specific questions, and then all but had me signed up to become a helicopter pilot. Heck, it sounded fun, and he was excited to get me, I was excited to get paid…

Oh yeah, about that. All of the sudden we were back to the “wait a couple years to get into that program” thing. Apparently it’s a popular modality in the military. In the meantime I saw myself living on an army base in some godfersaken land that not even the natives want, doing virtually nothing, expending a lot of sweat doing it – waiting, hoping, sweating…suddenly this guy’s enthusiasm seemed a little needy.

And so finally I came to the last office, the Navy.

The Navy guy…offered me a cup of coffee, had me take a quick version of the ASVAB test, and said that if I could pass the real ASVAB half as well as that one I could be employed by my government and on my way to an exotic land (Great Lakes, Illinois) next week.

As long as being a submariner was what I wanted.

I looked at him funny. He reclined in his steel folding chair, gestured towards me magnanimously with his cup and said, “it pays more”, reached behind him for the pot, and refilled my coffee. I asked him how he knew about subs, he pointed at his chest, at a marine-gargoyle-looking insignia he wore on his chest. He told me that out of everything he wore on his chest he was – and would always be – most proud of that pin, the submarine insignia.

Dolphins. That was the moment. Right there, while he talked of being a submariner, I knew what I had been looking for all along. Something kindled inside me. I slowly began to feel like I was on fire. I was going to wear those fish. I was going to wear them well.

He refilled my coffee cup. We talked some more. We drank more coffee. The fire in me warmed. My blood flowed faster. Or maybe it was the caffeine, I’m not sure.

“You’re sure you want to leave now? There are programs I think you’d do well…”

I interrupted, “I have a daughter to feed, a wife to shelter, and a vacuum cleaner hell-hound on my trail. I haven’t got time to be that special.”

Ok then. You leave in two weeks.”

Two weeks later, a jet-plane carried me aloft from Portland in the late afternoon, and flew into the deepening gloom towards Chicago. The blanket of darkness rolled in from the eastern horizon, like a doom coming to pass. I stared hard at the approaching darkness, and something in me awoke.

I feared no darkness.

That hell-hound Kirby Classic would never track me here, and if it did… I‘d be ready.

I never heard what became of the vacuum cleaner.

Explaining the Gizmos

I can neither confirm nor deny that I may…or may not…have been born with an mischievous streak.  I’ve heard the whisperings, but to date, little evidence exists.  Well, there are two bits of evidence.  The first is a rare photo:

Innocent and pure as the driven snow

Innocent and pure as the driven snow

The second is a bit of anecdotal evidence:

So there I was, Sonar Supervisor on watch, in an undisclosed zone somewhere in the Atlantic, hundreds of feet below the surface, when a tightly-wound and naive O-gang non-qual comes sniffing around for signatures. He’s been in before, and frankly, isn’t picking up stuff as fast as he thinks he is. He wants to know what the gizmos in the back of the shack do, and by golly, I’m the guy to teach him, apparently,  He plops himself down in front of the BQR-25 and awaits his lesson. Me, being the all-wise-aleck 2nd-class that I was, sense a victim.

I commence to explain to him that this is a top-secret listening device connected to the towed array. The little crank-knob dial (which is for steering a virtual listening beam) I explain “actually turns the end of the array around in the ocean like a snake’s head, and can stick to the side of a Commie submarine with a suction cup hydrophone on the end.”

I feel his sense of wonder, and it’s pure fuel to me. Being aware that we only have one distant merchant contact at the time and no expectations of anything remotely entertaining, I begin to explain to him that we can listen to soviet wardroom conversations in the right conditions, right through their hull, by steering and attaching it via this steering knob. I quickly add that of course any such actual contact would be HIGHLY classified, and that sonar would instantly become an exclusion area – only people with “need to know” allowed, regardless of security clearance level. I set him to training the listening beam around with the crank knob, and hand him a set of headphones from out of the patch panel to practice with. I neglected to tell him that the phones he has are actually the secondary set for the main broadband stack – the one with the big hydrophone array in the front of the boat.
 At this point I nudge my aux operator at the front of the shack, who growls the TMOW, a good friend of mine who happens to know a few words of Russian If he stands between the torpedo tubes and talks real loud, he can be faintly heard on broadband. My aux operator surreptitiously fills him in on the SitRep.

Two minutes later the hapless nub’s eyes fly open, he throws the ‘phones at me, says,”I’m not supposed to be here!”, and disappears.

20 seconds later the Weps Officer is standing in sonar, finding us nearly in tears laughing.

Another minute later, the skipper shows up, looking alarmed, and finds all of us – now including the Weps – still laughing. I’ll give him credit, he really, really tried to keep a straight face.

Ah…good times!



Getting Coffee, two minutes ago.


USS Scorpion, SSN-589

So there I was, in the back of the Sonar shack of the USS Shark, SSN 591, conducting a secret safe inventory prior to getting underway. I’ll never forget that day. I was waist-deep in inventory sheets and publications, pressed against the back wall because someone with a left-handed brain and a right-handed manual had put the safe up side against the back wall, so that the door opened outward, at knee height. Being on a submarine, I was well-accustomed to odd storage in odd places, but this just defied stupidity. I had to essentially stand on my head holding a flashlight in my teeth to see anything inside, and because it was a secret safe, just hauling everything out and laying it on the floor was more or less frowned upon.
My Senior Chief, who was normally a pretty mellow guy, had gotten irritated with our Sonar Officer trying to tell him how we should do something while talking in the passageway outside the shack, so he went and hauled him into Sonar for a little “private counseling”. Neither saw me, there in the back up against the bulkhead halfway upside-down. Senior Chief came in first, and spun around, JO started reiterating whatever it was he had said out in the passageway as he shut the door, which he apparently was doing too slowly. The senior chief held his hand up, leaned around and helped the JO finish shutting the door to the shack, stood himself back up straight and said, “Listen, lad. I’ve been doing it this way on this class of boat since I qualified on the Scorpion…”

For the uninitiated, you should know that the USS Scorpion sank in 1968. We were struggling our way through the last part of 1986, as I recall.

Apparently, at this particular moment the fleas of a thousand camels flew up my nose, and I sneezed. They both turned to look at me like I had just invaded the Holy of Holies. Then the Jnior Officer suddenly realized the gravity of what had just been said, and looked back at the Senior Chief with a bit of slack-jawed reverence. He drew a deep breath, looked at his feet, and said, very quietly, “I’m sorry”, and edged out the door.

Senior Chief was still glaring at me. The void through which the JO left gloomed at me, like the place I should have been two minutes ago. I smiled the wan smile of a man who is trying hard to recreate the historical facts of recent history. Senior Chief – still glaring. I stood up, turned to slide past him sideways in the narrow shack, and asked him if I could get him a cup of coffee two minutes ago. He didn’t exactly smile quite, but said, “and don’t come back for two minutes.”

We never spoke of it again. But once in a while, I would see Senior Chief talking to JO, and I’d smirk. And Senior Chief would glare the Glare of Doom. And I’d say, “Coffee, two minute ago, aye”.

Communication skills. I have them.

Coffee thief

Lament for an Old Boat

USS Blueback SS-581-small 036


Am I the only one that dreams, sometimes

of putting together a crew of men whose seabags, buried deep in a back closet

still smell of brine, and diesel, and the hearts and souls of men

Who never thought of themselves brave

But thought with foul mouths, and big hearts, whose courage looked straight into the insanity of sinking a ship on purpose

Stared it down

and returned from the deep with Neptune’s cup, filled with a salty draught.


Am I the only one who sees an old boat,

tied, welded to a pier, dreaming of her glory days

while tourists boggle at things they’d never dreamed possible?

and plots in my mind to set her free, loosening the lines of that old boat

and with the tide waning,

sliding silently into the murky river water,

letting the open current caress her dark, sleek lines once more

And slip out of the river

And out of the harbour

And out, across, and into the open, watery horizon

Where together we dash her face with the brine of open sea,

bringing her senses back to her


I can already feel it, the sudden shuddering, firing of the diesel

The first burst of sooty smoke and then

The surge of life – feeling the innards course with life again.

Am I the only one whose heart is already going on a cruise in an old smoke boat?


Would we try to submerge it?

Damn straight we would!


Riding the lookout stand in the sail, feeling the communion of the sea coming on,

Binoculars around my neck, the wind tugging at my face, and my hat, urging me like a Siren to leave the confines of the boat, and be free forever.

But I am not here for the Sea

I am here for one last ride, to honor this boat

whose engineers, and crew, and officers, used her strength to defend themselves

and the ones they loved

To ride once more in her belly

So I go down, hand over steely rungs, in the familiar sway

that a submariner knows best, swinging my way down,

into a different world.  From topside to below, I might as well have transported to the moon.

Nothing of the open sea remains.


This place was my life, it’s no good to simply stand here, as a separate thing from the boat. I have to move away from the trunk, and away from the idea of being something distinct, myself, and to become only a part. I am ready to snuggle in to this weapon we called home, and listen to her churn, dozens of mechanical wonders quietly, subtly moving, breathing, pulse flowing. Every step I take, around the conn, deeper into the boat, I shed a layer of individuality, and am absorbed into the boat.


I can feel the machinery all around me, and the subtle roll of the boat at periscope depth. Can you sense the shift in the atmosphere when the hatch closes, and the boat becomes whole. A flurry of alarms, and activity gives way to a calm as the boat leaves the surface, suddenly still. The faint noise and subtle rocking of the surface are gone, and we are abandoned to the deep. I can still feel the gradual calming loss of dependence on the surface – facing that fear that has gripped sailors for centuries, is our purpose. We sink into the sea, no longer merely bobbing above it. The old familiar act of slipping on a set of headphones, of opening myself to the undersea world that few have ever experience, settles me in. I listen, for a time, to the whale’s call, the rain’s hiss, the distant fishermen’s boats churning against their load. And sometimes…every so often, sometimes, I still hear the whispers of other boats, the too-quiet silence in the midst of a pod of shrimp, the single metallic clink that has no reason to be in this chartless deep, and the sense of other men, straining to hear us, not knowing if we’re there, hunting, like us. Pursuing, like us. At home in the sea…like us.


The Big Game is long over for these old girls, They cannot compete with the modern boats – they are too loud, their equipment no longer superior. but couldn’t we just get one more ride out there, just to give her that one last run. I can see the familiar red-lit passageways. I can see familiar valves, the ones I had to memorize, whose handles taught me to trust – in myself, and in my shipmates who knew them as well or better than I did.

Some handles were cold, and jeweled with sweated condensation from the outside chill. Some were heated – water, air, oil all compressed, lifeblood pushed to its limit to make the ship’s systems function. The compartment hatches hung on thick, stout hardware, their weight enough to pinch off fingers. I can feel the unforgiving solidity of the hatchway, and the scar of the gash above my right eyebrow remembers – there is no give, at all, in a hatchway. Flesh gave way without question that day. The weight of the boat is immense.


The smells change going into the engine compartments. Oils, fluids, chemicals that aren’t of any use forward, but mark the territory of the heart of this boat, as surely as the musk of a bear marks its den. The thrum of the machinery beats against my head, and I can remember realizing long ago that talking to anyone was nearly pointless here, I sank into my own thoughts, accepting that outer thoughts were in vain. It was here, in nooks and corners of this cacophony of contained sound, nestled between pipes and cables, and bulkhead frames, that the shallow thoughts that battered my mind were drowned, and I could focus, memorizing diagrams, practicing valve line-ups, touching air outlets, finding fire hoses and flooding kits, remembering breakers, remembering valves, remembering.





I knew this boat.

And not just with my mind. My skin knew it. My bones knew it. My ears knew it. My nose could sense it. My heart knew it. Something that was beyond myself knew it – my crew knew it. No, I didn’t just know this boat.

I Lived this boat.

On the crews mess, we sat in predictable areas, the non-quals working through their learning, buzzing in and out of the crews mess with questions, and diagrams, searching for something they could feel but did not yet know. A couple of qualified guys always sat there, ready, either reading, or teaching the youngsters. Others among the qualified hung like a street gang in the torpedo room, sometimes plotting new mischief for the nubs, sometimes for each other. Always something was being plotted. And it was usually mischief. Or making fun of one another’s mothers. We waited for the next drill, or the next emergency, or the next exercise, or the next watch. Waiting to go back on battle-stations, and abandon our hope to the will of the gods. HA! No, never to the gods. The gods we knew there in the cold Deep could go to hell. And we’d send them ourselves if we had to. This boat was our turf, and no deity was going to tell us what we could or couldn’t do, because by Davy Jone’s locker, we had learned to take this boat deep into their turf, and wrest our own fate from their whim. It was in our hands now, in the hands of our knowledge, and practice, and memory, and in the unspeakably horrible weapons we carried. We spoke in the torpedo room of mischief, because we lived in such close company with it, it could not be left alone. We befriended it to keep a watchful eye, lest it try to scurry off and warn the gods of the deep of our coming.

This was what this boat was, an intricate lacework of steel, oil, cable, pipe, steam, electricity, and men. Each gave its identity to the boat. And in return, the boat became a single living being.

The Qualification of a Submariner

The last evening of our patrol started the moment I got off watch. My usual routine was to leave the Sonar shack, get something to snack and some coffee, and head for a quiet corner to study my notes, and from which to wander the boat, putting my hands on valves, breakers, panels, emergency lockers – anything to strengthen my memory of the working systems of the boat. For nine long months I had devoted every spare moment to learning every feature of this old boat, one of the S-girls, the USS Shark. As a part of a submarine crew, I had to be able to respond to any emergency that may crop up where I stood at any given moment. Should a fire start, or a pipe burst, or any of the intricate survival, power, or weapons systems go awry, there was not always time to assemble systems experts to discuss the problem. Action had to be taken immediately, and the person standing next to the emergency had to be able to respond intelligently. That person’s knowledge could be the only chance the rest of the crew had. In Russian Roulette, the empty chamber is the one that wins. In a submarine emergency, the empty head standing next to it is not just death for one person, but for a hundred. The last thing anyone wants at that moment is to be the guy that can only stand there in fear, with no clue what to do. To wear the coveted “Dolphins”, the insignia of the qualified submariner, is to bear the trust of a hundred men. Names were to be had for those who hadn’t finished the qualification process yet: Nubs, FLOB’s (Free-loading Oxygen Breathers), Non-quals. If you were behind schedule in your qualification, you were a Dink (Delinquent) and hounded mercilessly. A submarine crew has as much mercy for for slackers as the 400 feet of sea above us had for our tiny tube of steel. Any weakness would be crushed.


Tonight, however, my schedule was different. I had finished my qualification card, a series of interviews and signatures that I had amassed in the nine months since my arrival on the boat, interrogations given by qualified crew-members considered experts on their respective systems. I had been grilled about the air systems, the hydraulics systems, the electrical, the emergency equipment, the reactor, the propulsion, weapons, small arms, the waste systems, the atmospheric monitoring and maintenance systems…every aspect of the boat had been put to question to me. I knew about spaces on that old girl that made her blush. Any given interview had taken days to learn, and sometimes hours to finish an interview before a signature was given. I had failed interviews for lack of a single answer, given “lookups”, and another day’s studying before return. And I had done this all while also learning my job as a Sonarman, learning the acoustic traits of friend and foe alike, learning how to tease detection of those traits from an array of hydrophone sensors, connected to dozens of cabinets full of electronics, memorizing numbers representing the characteristics of propulsion systems and churning screws of all sorts of water craft, tuning my ear to hear the difference between mechanical and biological noise sources. And I had learned to repair this equipment when it malfunctioned, learned to maintain it on a prescribed schedule to keep it tuned and calibrated. For nine months, I had worked three jobs. But tonight I was going to rest.


I turned over to my relief, briefing him on the happenings of our watch so that he could, from the moment he took the headphones, be on top of any development that may come from the contacts we held. Tonight was a busy night, acoustically, but the traffic topside was all commercial. We approached our surface point, from where we would transit in to port soon. It was expected that we would pull in in the morning, and I planned to catch up on sleep, and be ready for going home to wife and children tomorrow. I took the five steps from the Sonar door and turned, sliding on my hands down the ladder rails and navigating automatically through the twisting path to the crews’ mess coffee pot. I had spent much of the last nine months in front of this machine, making and fetching coffee for the sonar watch team as the nub of the division, its most junior man. In under fifteen seconds, I hovered over the pot in a ritual stronger than the call of my rack, drawing in the strong brew’s aroma. I was jarred from my reverie by the 1MC announcing circuit crackling to life.

“Station the Maneuvering Watch” came a bland announcement. As sweetly as the anticipation of the luxury of sleep had come, it now departed with the snap of the release of the microphone over the speaker. I turned, and returned to my station in Sonar. A month at sea with endless weapons drills, engineering drills, fire drills, flooding drills, had made the dejection of another lost sleep opportunity almost automatic. I numbly accepted this new schedule, that in another hour we would tie up to the pier, and that I was on duty tonight. There would be no wife and children until later tomorrow.

The lines were thrown over to the pier by the last light of the day, and with brisk efficiency the boat was tied, secured, and the same bland voice finally announced, “Secure the Maneuvering Watch”. I knew the officer that made the announcement. I marveled at his ability to mimic a Being with no soul. I wondered silently if Officers’ training included this, or if he was truly a transformed hound from hell. Two-thirds of the crew were all ready to depart, lurking in various spaces between berthing and Control Room, the path to the outside. The past month’s exercises were behind us, and these men were ready to see their loved ones, to breathe fresh air, to stretch in every direction, and to think nothing of the sea for a while. I, on the other hand, as part of the remaining crew on duty, had to spend the night. I picked up my dreams of sleep, dusted them off, and put my plan for sleep back into action, securing the sonar systems and opening the thin, aluminum-framed door once again for my well-worn 80-step path to bed. My Senior Chief stood outside the door, hand on the knob I had just pulled from his grasp. He smiled the smile of a man about to exact revenge for a lifetime of annoyance and tribulation. Moses smiled this smile when he realized that the Israelites, after they passed through the parted sea before them, would be wandering through the desert wearing nothing but sandals.

“Qual board in 20 minutes, Roesener. Make me proud.” And then he disappeared through control, and out the hatch, following the exodus of men dragging sea bags up and to the pier.  He had a gift for brevity.

The Submarine Qualification Board: This dreaded and coveted interview represents the end of a long list of lesser interviews. A single, big interview, administered by an assembly of four crew-members, including one officer. These shipmates are designated by their reputation for knowledge of the boat. Every board is different, depending on which men are available to serve on the board. The length of the interview can range from a couple hours to several, depending on the proficiency of the candidate’s answers, and his attitude. If you’re certain of your answers, give quick, pointed, and complete responses, and show a respectful eagerness to take on more questions, they often keep the interview short. If you seem uncertain, they will probe you for your weakness, and exploit it until you fail. Get too cocky, and they will batter you just for the pleasure of it. Like sea pressure, they never stop.

I was already half-asleep, the rocking of the boat on the surface lulling me into a pleasant drowsiness, to which I had already half-surrendered. To come back from this point in the sleep cycle was going to take decisive, dramatic action. I lurched towards the coffee pot.

I spent my twenty minutes alternately blazing my way mentally through bits of anticipated questions, and devising ways of cooling coffee down enough to ingest more than my share of volume in less than my share of time. 4 cups later, I sat in the control room of the submarine, in the swiveled seat of the helmsman, with the hum of 400hz equipment providing background ambiance for four slightly irritated men who had also dreamed of sleep.

By the time the formalities of beginning the interview was over, I was beginning to feel the jittery effects of too much caffeine on too little sleep. The first question, posed by a machinist’s mate, was a classic question:

“You are a drop of sea-water. Make the light in your rack light up.”

I had prepared for this one. The question is simple – a nuclear submarine uses a steam turbine to generate it’s electricity. The answer, however, requires intimate knowledge of several subsystems. Intake valves, seawater pumps must be named by number and location. Piping needs to be described. The process through the development of steam from nuclear power must be explained both in theoretical detail, and described by location of equipment, safety shut-offs, control panels, etc. Once the generator has been turned, and electricity developed, then electrical systems, busses, breakers, panels, and wires are named by number designation and location until the generated electron has been pushed through the ballast of the small flourescent light inside each bunk, and in particular mine, and then passed through to ground for a complete circuit. I was ready. I opened my mouth, articulated my response at length, and then finally drew a deep breath, slouched back in my chair, still jittery from the coffee, and broke the ice.

“So…is that the best you’ve got?”

I’ve had better tactical moments. I sat in front of four men, all of whom were keenly attuned to the fact that we, returning sailors from a month at sea, still sat aboard our boat, unable to go home until the morrow. They had thought of their sleep as a means to while away the remaining time until they could go topside, to the fresh air and greater expanses of the world. I had just provided them with the one thing more appealing to a submariner than sleep. I had provided them a target.

8 pupils dilated slightly and focused on my face. 4 mouths curled wickedly into mischief. Four bodies bestirred themselves, shifting in their seats with the unspoken phrase erupting in unison from each one, “WELL now…”. As one, they all sat up and leaned forward in fresh anticipation.

And so it began. For six hours I sweated through questions regarding every imaginable point between the bow and stern of that submarine, inside and outside the pressure hull, and explored the connections and implications of all of them. I discoursed on procedures, on the history of those procedures, on the fate of the boats from whose history those procedures had arisen. I explained at least three quarters of the theories of modern physics, as they pertained to maintaining a submarine in the sea, providing life-support for it’s men, detecting it’s enemies and delivering it’s weapons. I answered obscure questions, convoluted questions, devious questions designed to generate the dreaded “Lookup”. My bladder filled and drained twice. On each trip to the head, all I could think about was the time I was giving the group to secretly consort and design new torturous conundrums into which to hurl me. I rued my words like I had never rued an act in my life. Oh man, did I rue. A deep and abiding rueing of the day, combined with caffeine overdose rush, is an experience never to be forgotten. I predict that at the end, my own death will be delayed by the time it takes to shudder, once again, as that last memory passes through my expiring mind and sends one last shiver of horripilation through my inert body.


And in the midst of all of it, I was finally asked one question I could not answer. That question remains as fresh in my today as it was that night 27 years ago.

Where, oh where do I recharge an expended PKP fire extinguisher. And yes. I know the answer.


Over the past few months I’ve come to know a group of veterans  who have experienced more than their share of anguish.  In the last few days this theme came to my mind, and in the end, the following came from it.  This is for them:


Mother’s anguish bleeds

from the body of a mother’s son dying

Through the stream of a mother’s soul

tears turn to pools, pools into streams.

Streams into torrents

Mother’s son’s mother cries.

wretched life wasted, wretched cry wasted – wretched

Anguish is the sound of the torrent through her torn soul.

Raging in the ears of those who didn’t know.

Still don’t know.

Won’t ever know.


Son’s anguish sneaks

out the back alley, down the lane, out to the highway

The sound of grief and failure suppressed,

the soul pushed down the asphalt way

motor off

the crunch and pop of loose gravel its only voice.

Until its final grief explodes, pent-up breath,

becomes the sound of the machine jamming through gears

The empty night highway has no more dreams,

running away

Rider’s soul flutters, torn, to the pavement behind,

Anguish is the fading sound of anger,  rounding the distant corner, gone.

Not holding back, never looking back.


Looking back.


Father’s Anguish

never spoken, never open

always borne, never born,

bears the pain of mother’s anguish

bears the blame for children’s anguish

wears the sound of anguish in his eyes

no one hears the scream 

of such pain as no single soul can bear

it flutters in the wind without a sound like a drum-skin, torn,

Anguish is the sound of his silence

Beaten, in the presence of hope.

Torn, in the presence of pride.

Soundless, in the presence of joy.


Memorial of freedom’s sacrifice

This Memorial Day, I heard several people suggest that to honor those who served in combat honors war itself, and that perhaps we should not. I would like to take a moment to publicly dispute this.

They suggest that perhaps if we spent as much time working for peace as we do preparing for war, we would all be better off. It would seem there are those who still believe there aren’t and down through history never has been people who don’t want to work for peace, but for domination. There comes a point where you can’t talk to those people. There was no talking to King George, as Ben Franklin eventually came to believe and advise. There came a point where there was no talking to the folk who felt the need to own other people in this country, as gentle a man as Abraham Lincoln came to realize. Stalin, Hitler, Emperor Hirohito, Ho Chi Minh, Osama bin Laden…there’s a long list. At some point our freedom has been threatened by these people who didn’t fail to understand reason or respect for others rights, they simply had no interest in it.

I don’t use freedom as a patriotic catchphrase to be bandied around with a flag tied to it. I mean the right to determine our style of government, our right to raise our children with our own beliefs, not those of the state, our right to choose within the confines of personal circumstances our occupation, religious belief, the very location of our home. It is our freedom that allows us to change those things if opportunity, conviction, and desire motivate us. These are our freedoms, and it is these that were threatened. Many consider these freedoms trivial. I believe they think this way because that freedom has never been genuinely threatened or restricted, and the reality of life without them is too far away for most to give serious thought to, what with the joys or pains of the moment in front of us. But there are those amongst us who, when called upon, are capable of seeing a little further, and have acted upon the need to be prepared for our defense against those who would deny us those freedoms. We have set aside one day in a year to celebrate the foresight and sacrifice it has taken for us to remain free.

The people who have been in combat know a secret that is hard to live with. They realize that in spite of all the skill, or equipment, or training – often it comes down to odds that can only be influenced in small ways, and the guy they were just standing next to died because some guy across the battlefield just happened to target him. That guy didn’t die because he was a lesser man, but because he, and everyone else, volunteered to place themselves in the way of this possibility for a cause they felt was that important. Chance did the rest.

It is hard to live with this, because most men in combat have seen others act in a way that makes no sense to the common world – they’ve seen men take actions that endanger themselves in order to protect those around them. In some of the worst of human conditions some of the best human traits come to the surface to meet the need. And every man that’s been in combat and not died comes away wondering, somewhere in the back of his mind, why it wasn’t he that was killed, but some other guy. We wonder if perhaps that guy was more worthy, more courageous – if maybe that other guy died because we didn’t do enough- and we remember it for the rest of our life. We do this despite the abject fear we sometimes saw in that man’s eyes, the fear-driven anger, things that are ugly, and not comfortable talking about. We still wonder in the aftermath if that man was more worthy than us. Memorial day is one day for these men to share this pain of survival with others, to give those who were safe at home a moment’s glimpse into what it takes to maintain this way of life, and most importantly, to honor the men we had the opportunity to see at their best when no one else could. It seems most people don’t believe it takes armed conflict. It seems much of our society believes armed soldiers are bloodthirsty animals looking for prey. Memorial day is a moment for us to realize that most of those who have been in combat were not looking for blood, and expected no glory, on the day when our companions died. On that day when battle plans are executed, men feel fear because they do not want to be killed, nor do they want to kill. And yet, to protect the society they support, it must be done, and this is that day.

Most everyone prefers peace. But once in a while, someone who will not be satisfied with peace comes along, and needs defending against. We don’t have a memorial day for those people. We have a memorial day for those who picked up a weapon and defended his home against them, regardless of the danger. We don’t celebrate the brash young man who left home with his rifle to kick some butt yelling “yee-hah!” down the road in a cloud of dust. We celebrate the courage of a young man who got to battle, and learned quickly that there was more to it than that, that his glory came second to the survival of his group, and who, in the end, got his butt kicked defending them. We celebrate that transformation from brashness to complete sacrifice. And through that example we wish for more courage ourselves to face the need for sacrifice in living each day in our hard-won freedom, seeking peace.

Learning to Focus

They say I must learn to focus
But they do not mean I must learn to focus
what they mean is I must learn to unfocus
on everything but them
whoever they are, whatever they want from me
that is what they mean; that is what they want
they want my full and undivided lack of focus
They want my will to become theirs
and so – it becomes theirs
I give it willingly
because I want to be loved
and they promise that giving them my will makes them love me

They do love me
but when they say, “me”
they do not mean me
my heart is not a heart to them
my spirit is not a spirit to them
in their minds my spirit does not soar
in their bosom my heart does not beat
they harvest my spirit
they dissect my heart
they take from within it the jewel that God put within
and grind it up, create for themselves a paste
a potion from which they acquire perverted power
an aphrodisiac, from which they entice the lusts of the next one
my powers no longer heal others, but sicken
my beauty no longer inspires others, but entraps
the blood that gives life to my body
poisons the next, and the next…and the next

I focus
but the things I see me doing horrify me
I avert my gaze, ashamed of that thing that was me
my shame is used against me, to slam as a gate
against my escape
and so the fortress is built around me,
not to protect, but imprison me
in my own shame, I do their work

I focus
and I see that my shame is a mirror
there is no shame
only a reflection
By beholding, I become changed
indeed, I must learn to focus
They were right
and yet they lied with the truth
perhaps they live with shame as well
and perhaps I shall tell them, “you must learn to focus”
and perhaps I will not mean that they should learn to unfocus
on everything but me
But to focus on everything but them